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Music

U.S. Girls: Half Free

On her 4AD debut, a Toronto artist produces a damaged pop nightmare and one of the best albums of the year.


U.S. Girls

Half Free

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2015-09-25
Amazon
iTunes

For a certain type of person, only the apocalypse makes the inevitability of death legible. Such a synecdoche is not strictly solipsistic, though it resembles that philosophy. More accurately, one's own death remains ever beyond comprehension, the outside context villain that determines the course of (a) human life. Contemporary eschatological thought concerns itself above all with the environmental collapse toward which the Earth surely spins, the flows of capital escalating the flows of glacial melt. Even the most dire models predict that the new Flood will be a mere global catastrophe, maybe the end of civilization as we know it, but, properly speaking, it will not be apocalyptic.

Therefore, Meg Remy, the Toronto-based artist releasing her 4AD debut as U.S. Girls, has a different vision of apocalyptic death, one universally applicable rather than statistically probable. You see, it's all in her head. Chirping Half Free's most compelling of its many indelible hooks, she tries to convince whoever listens "You all have nothing here / You have so much to fear". An oscillator throbs at nightmare frequency. This song, "New Age Thriller", trills and rumbles with the rest of the album, caught between disco and New Wave, when Grace Jones and Suicide and Marianne Faithfull terrorized rhythm. She weaponizes the condescension that often subtends, and maybe inheres in, paranoia: "You don't own yourself...And when the breakdown comes / Then you'll hear what I said". Surveilled but unfettered, the paranoid person is one emblem of the half-free, an encapsulating metaphor for the human condition under duress. Remy has no time for pathological paranoia, though: it is a sensible reaction to a world that is out to get people, socially, existentially, ontologically.

Specifically, out to get women. The decay and betrayals in close relationships get their due as emotional hardships worth exorcising, but "That woman's work is never done...Transformation that was promised / Made her come undone" is next-level horror. Even for those who already object to the unreasonable expectations of beauty placed on women, "Woman's Work" is an Italo Disco/outrun stranglehold, hinged around a Suspiria stage-whisper: "There's no reversal / You can't stop aging / It's always on the way." Even female solidarity only offers so much relief from these pressures. By the end opening track, "Sororal Feelings," sisterly love gives way to something more sinister and ambiguous, unnamed but ultimately reified in the bleakest vision for the emancipation of women since The Passion of Joan of Arc. Confusing a brothel and the family home—performing the inherent, gendered labor demanded from womanhood, four sisters, "sharing more than / just a family name," marry off one by one until the last, our narrator, realizes her new husband slept with the three others. "You didn't pay me / You thought that you should get it free / Sororal feelings, / erased from the minute you landed on me / and now I'm gonna hang myself / Hang myself from the family tree." Denying the reproductive mandate that remains one of society's most powerful injunctions against women's self-determination is a radical form of dissent, narrated with disturbingly offhand lyrical precision, married to the relentless snap and slide of a degraded rhythm loop, and sold with a memory-of-a-lullaby melody. Genealogy recurs as a source of anxiety, so maybe it is for the best. It's not for any of us to decide for anyone else. But as Remy tells her friend during a phone call, offering limited hope, "The worst is Fathers and Sons... At least I'm no one's son... Yeah, instead I am just another woman with no self esteem."

Only among these songs' anguish could the dissolution of a relationship offer emotional relief, and only among their bitrate-damaged pop could the relative sonic clarity of the merely lo-fi soothe the ear. But so it is. The crumbling California sound of "Sed Knife" and the more purified disco of "Window Shades" play like the precipitation and fallout surrounding a breakup that seems less volitional than a result of existential slouch. In the former, the "sedentary knife" cuts between her and her partner, a weapon neither needs to pick up from the kitchen table for it to slice them apart, while sobs bleed in from the wall. Remy's narrators might as well stay in the home. Like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, the home has its dangers and torments, but the outside world is worse—it's even lonelier. Walking the night streets of Los Angeles, all the narrator sees are "Silhouettes on the window shades" as she must convince herself, over and over, not to call her ex. She fails, twice. At least the sauntering bass gives her the dignity of a strut, however provisional and temporary it may be.

Scattered among the social and existential terrors visited upon the narrators of the other songs, these relationship dramas can seem emotionally blighted in comparison. Sadness is less magisterial an emotion than terror, meandering less lurid than suicide. Remy knows that everyone, as much as she, "been wonderin' / about the space in between / They've been turning it over / in their minds / trying to figure out / the end they will meet / Skies of navy & cream / a sweet storm rising up / to take me back to the nest." But it is, rather, the emotionally blighted who cannot attend to mundane melancholies, regrets, nights spent in wandering fugue, days in revolting stupor, that constitute the space in between two incomprehensibilities. However the climactic storm at the end of human experience signifies, as metaphor for the self's disintegration or a very literal scientific prophecy of ecological disaster, we are more than vessels of doom. Any theory of non-existence must account for its opposite.

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